When Nico Dauphine Poisoned Cats, Which Birds Was She Trying To Save?

WASHINGTON -- Did the bird researcher convicted of trying to kill cats in Columbia Heights actually help birds in need?

On Monday, Nico Dauphine, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, was found guilty of attempted animal cruelty for leaving poison for feral cats outside the Park Square apartments in the 2400 block of 15th St. NW.

She was likely trying to protect birds in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Dauphine had earlier published a letter in The New York Times saying that the ongoing battle between cats and birds is really a one-sided slaughter. She also published a research paper on the toll taken by free-ranging domestic cats on bird populations -- a paper containing the following rather telling paragraph:

American birds face an estimated 117 to 157 million exotic predators in the form of free-ranging domestic cats (Felis catus), which are estimated to kill at least one billion birds every year in the United States. Cats have contributed to declines and extinctions of birds worldwide and are one of the most important drivers of global bird extinctions. ... [E]ffective cat and wildlife management in this context will also require strengthening and enforcing policies and laws that control outdoor cats, many of which are already in place.

Given the court's judgment that Dauphine did commit the crimes of which she was accused -- she claims not to have been the Park Square cat poisoner, despite being caught on video -- a reasonable next question is: Are there vulnerable bird populations near the Park Square apartments?

Probably not. Matt Todd, who has been bird watching for 15 years, told The Huffington Post he doesn't know of any birds in Columbia Heights that would be considered "endangered." Rock Creek Park, he said, has some interesting migrating songbirds -- like warblers -- but "they don't really venture into the city," he said. "They're sticking to the green highway the park provides."

Columbia Heights does have birds, Todd said, but they are very common types -- pigeons, sparrows and starlings. "Not birds that are necessarily endangered," he noted.

Steve Pretl, president of the Montgomery Bird Club, says he doesn't know of any unusual birds in Columbia Heights, either. "When I walk in the area, I see the normal complement of city birds -- pigeons, house sparrows, the occasional mockingbird," he wrote in an email.

In a later interview on the phone, Pretl said it was possible that Meridian Hill Park (located directly across from the Park Square apartment building) could be home to a red-tailed hawk, although he wasn't aware of one actually living there -- and even if there were, he said, a cat probably wouldn't put it at risk.

"Among birders and conservationists, a lot of people really decry outdoor cats as big killers of birds," Pretl said. "But this sounds like an indiscriminate thing. I'd be surprised if there were any fragile populations of birds in this neighborhood, in downtown D.C."

What looked indiscriminate -- and cruel, not to mention illegal -- to others, however, may not have seemed so to Dauphine. From her paper, it seems reasonable to suppose she worried about all birds, whether uncommon hawks or ordinary pigeons:

Species that are range-restricted or endangered are more likely to show population level impacts than are other species. However, populations of many more common species may also be negatively affected by free-ranging cats, and many birds previously considered to be common are declining at alarming rates. In addition, while biologists often study populations, the value of birds and other wildlife is not restricted to population level phenomena. As Longcore, et al., pointed out: "it is philosophically inappropriate for population level impacts to be the only criteria by which the effects of cats are judged. .... We see no justification for valuing birds and other wildlife only as populations, while valuing cats as individuals."